CHICAGO, IL — Peter Nickeas mans the Chicago Tribune’s graveyard shift. Witnessing Chicago’s “violence and mayhem”—as his Twitter bio puts it—is what he does, four nights a week.
On most nights, Nickeas is constantly on the move. He chases violence from one crime scene to another in the belief that “the best work of journalism comes when we are outside, asking questions and talking to people, observing and witnessing things,” he says.
That’s why, on May 29, Nickeas drove to the scene of a fatal shooting near Marquette Park on the city’s Southwest Side. What awaited him was the aftermath of another act of violence: A 14-year-old boy had taken three bullets to his chest.
Nickeas went on to work the scene. He found and interviewed the boy’s brother. He took notes as the relatives were let past the police tape to identify the body. He stuck around long enough to meet the neighbors.
This is what he observed:
Christine Barakat was yelling. Her eyes were wide, and her hands were shaking as she forced her 13-year-old son and 16-year-old nephew to look down the block at their dead friend.
The 13-year-old made a weak attempt to break away and go back inside. But his aunt standing nearby grabbed him by the arm and also forced him to look.
“I want y’all to see firsthand. Look it,” Christine Barakat said.
“This is what y’all want? The hell with this … ’cause they gonna have to scrape my m——-f——— ass off the floor if that’s you, do you hear me? Do you hear me?”
It’s gripping, well-observed stuff—and it reflects a sense of purpose among news organizations here to expand their coverage on the city’s violence problem, and to do so with attention to the human stories behind the grim stats. That commitment is reflected in efforts like the Tribune’s “Chicago Under the Gun” project and the “Homicide Watch Chicago” initiative at the rival Chicago Sun-Times.
But when I reached out to a group of about 15 journalists and educators in Chicago to assess how the city’s violence is being covered, the consensus was that, while there’s work to be proud of, there’s also room for improvement. The level of soul-searching and the details of diagnosis among the group varied. But most agreed that there’s too much “scoreboard” reporting—represented by numbing headlines like, “82 shot, 14 fatally.”
Then there’s the need for coverage that explores the roots of the violence, and that examines the effectiveness of local authorities’ response. That sort of work is being done—but it’s not, yet, as institutionalized as efforts to catalogue the violence and memorialize the victims.
Finally, there’s the question of balance, emphasis and focus: how to capture the genuine urgency of the situation, and the tragedy of each loss of life, without presenting a distorted view of the most affected communities.
“As long as we have reporting that gives the impression to everyone that poor, black folks in these communities don’t value life, it just adds to their sense of isolation,” says Stephen Franklin, the community media project director at the McCormick Foundation-funded Community Media Workshop, where he led the “We Are Not Alone” campaign to promote stories about solution-based anti-violence efforts.
Natalie Moore, the South Side Bureau reporter for the Chicago Public Radio, says journalists here should re-evaluate their coverage by asking the basic question: Why do we cover murders?
“What do we want people to know? Are we just trying to tell them to avoid the neighborhoods with many homicides?” Moore asks. “I’m personally struggling with it. I don’t know what the purpose is.”
At the big papers, a focus on ‘humanizing’ victims
How big is Chicago’s homicide problem, actually? As in much of the country, the homicide rate has fallen dramatically here from 1990s and early-2000s levels. Even in 2012, when the number of homicides spiked to more than 500—the most in the nation—the “murder capital” moniker was imprecise; many smaller cities had higher rates. Calls to send in the National Guard to deal with “Chiraq” blur that reality.
At the same time, the homicide rate in Chicago has fallen more slowly, and remains substantially higher, than in other big cities. The first half of 2014 produced 182 homicides—a pace of one per day—and this summer’s Fourth of July weekend was the bloodiest in recent memory. The city is less deadly than it used to be, but not as safe as it might be. And the violence, unsurprisingly, is concentrated in poorer neighborhoods.
It’s against this backdrop that the city’s two big newspapers have been developing new storytelling platforms that focus on “humanizing” the victims, families and communities.
Last year, for instance, the Tribune created its “Chicago Under the Gun” multimedia feature. Nickeas is a frequent contributor to its “Scene of the Crime” section, where his crime-scene dispatches are featured alongside photo slideshows and videos.
At the Sun-Times, Craig Newman, the paper’s managing editor, helped set up Homicide Watch Chicago—an offshoot of the innovative website launched in Washington, DC, with a mission to cover every homicide there.
“The idea behind the Homicide Watch is that we’re trying to humanize the victims,” Newman says. “A lot of them have some criminal backgrounds, and I think our readers tend to cast them aside—but these are people’s sons and daughters.”
Since its launch last year, the site has catalogued every homicide in Chicago and kept tabs as each case moves through the courts. “Unless you make it a point to specifically cover every single murder, what happens way too often is that a lot of them are going to get ignored,” says Michael Lansu, the project’s editor.
Those efforts have been noticed. Alex Kotlowitz, author of the best-selling book There Are No Children Here, says the papers’ coverage today is a far cry from the past. “I should tip my hat to the dailies,” he says. “I think the depth of their coverage has improved immensely—especially from 20 years ago when I was working on my book.”
But what’s often missing—in the big papers and elsewhere—is a multidimensional account of the communities beyond violence, says Kotlowitz, who wrote a 2008 article for The New York Times chronicling the work of an anti-violence group, CeaseFire, that led to a collaboration with the producer of the documentary The Interrupters.
“We need to do a better job of understanding the complexities and entanglements of these neighborhoods, which have been completely neglected and pushed aside,” he says. “To do that, you have to try to immerse yourself as much as you can in the communities and get to know people as intimately as you can.”
Kotlowitz acknowledges that not all reporters have the “luxury of time” to do that. Nickeas, for one, is the sole reporter on duty in the Tribune’s nighttime newsroom. “I’d love to do more contextual work, but it’s just not in the cards for me right now,” he says.
At the Sun-Times, Newman offers an analysis that sounds a lot like Kotlowitz’s: The violence problem “is a result of decades of institutional malaise, segregation, racism, disinvestment in the communities,” he says. And the paper has worked to support reporting that captures the bigger picture, he notes. A 2010 series, for instance, revealed that a vast majority of shootings didn’t lead to any criminal charges; the project went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. Today, “we have a lot of people working on [gun violence] from different angles,” he says.
To help keep those stories connected, Newman is planning to introduce an online portal that showcases them under one roof—much the same way “Early and Often” does for the paper’s political reporting. “What we haven’t done effectively so far is packaging them,” he says.
‘You don’t really know us’
Contextual reporting can help address risks that come with the violence beat—like the sort of “isolating” coverage that Stephen Franklin, the community media leader, warned about. For evidence that this dynamic is real, look no further than a recent Tribune op-ed penned by a class of fifth-graders at Bradwell School of Excellence—and written, it says, “as a counter-narrative to the constant negative publicity” their South Shore neighborhood receives.
“This is us,” the piece begins:
We saw your news trucks and cameras here recently and we read the articles, “Six shot in South Shore laundromat” and “Another mass shooting in Terror Town.” We saw the reporters with fancy suits in front of our laundromat. You spent less than 24 hours here, but you don’t really know us.
Of course, even the best and most sensitive reporting on gun violence is often about bad news. But which voices get heard can make a big difference.
Suzanne McBride, associate chair of the journalism department at Columbia College Chicago, is partnering this summer with Sharon Holmes, a ninth grade English teacher at Tilden Community Career Academy High School on the South Side, and photographer Krista Wortendyke. Together, they have embarked on a project inspired in part by “Harper High School,” a two-part, Peabody-winning series on the public radio show This American Life, in which a team of reporters spent five months at Harper to observe how violence affected the lives of its students.
For their project, McBride and Holmes are working not with experienced storytellers, but with four Tilden students, to document what their summer is like on the South Side.
In her introductory post, McBride gave a taste of what was to come:
One of the first events the teens will be documenting is Independence Day. It’s a holiday that many look forward to—a time for barbequing, hanging out with friends and family, and watching—or setting off—fireworks.
But for Jabbaria, it’s a time of anxiety, something she wants to pass quickly.
“I’m waiting for the 4th of July to be over. I’m scared because I can’t tell the difference between guns and fireworks,” she says.
Bryan jumps into the conversation: “Guns are faster.”
Franklin is quick to add that reporting from within the most affected communities can also make it easier to see the good news. “There are community groups that are incredibly involved and doing amazing things—really hopeful, interesting and diverse things—that deal with violence, but very rarely do you hear about their work in the media,” he says. “The point is that, the whole communities care—and all you have to do is to listen.”
The accountability angle
Of course, “dealing with violence” is not just the task of community groups. A key part of reporting this issue is measuring the effectiveness and integrity of local authorities’ response.
Again, there are some notable efforts in this area that could point the way to future coverage.
In October, for instance, the Chicago Public Radio examined the shaky premise behind the push for longer mandatory minimum sentences for people caught with illegal guns. The Chicago Reader, meanwhile, looked into why most aldermen—including many who represent violent neighborhoods—aren’t so vocal about the issue. “It turns out there’s a good reason for the silence: Many aldermen aren’t exactly sure what to do about the violence, politically or otherwise,” the story concluded. And, in April, Chicago magazine made a rare foray into the data-driven investigative journalism and concluded that the Chicago Police Department was likely fudging the numbers to make it look like fewer crimes had been committed.
The Chicago investigation drew the ire of the department, which slammed the story’s findings as “false, misleading and unsubstantiated.” But, last week, it prompted the City Council to haul police Superintendent Garry McCarthy into a hearing, where McCarthy again defended his department’s practices and ripped the story. He also offered a broader critique of the media, blaming the press for creating negative perception about the levels of crime in the city. “Twenty years ago, every single shooting, every single murder was not reported by social media or the press in general, and there’s no context to those reports.”
But Ray Suarez, who represents the West Side’s 31st Ward, pushed back. “Some of the folks that I represent are not buying it,” he told McCarthy. “I go to church. They grab me on the side and they start talking about it and say, ‘I read [about a drop in crime], and this is not so.’”
Getting to the bottom of these questions about the integrity of the crime data is one task for Chicago reporters. The exchange should also serve a reminder about the inequity of this issue: The brunt of the violence is borne by a handful of communities already facing a host of other social ills. As Kotlowitz points out, there’s more reporting to be done on this front too: “We still need to do a better job of understanding the brutal forces at work in these neighborhoods.”